“Tádídíín Bizaad” / “The Language of Corn Pollen”
Note: This broadside is part of our annual translation special feature. Our Translations Editor is CMarie Fuhrman. She selected two poems—one from a forthcoming publication from The Ofi Press, one by a poet writing in a language indigenous to the Americas. We are grateful for her time and vision. Of her choices, she had this to say:
2020 has challenged all of us in so many ways. One of those is to learn a new language. The language of Pandemic. Of COVID. We learned words like intubation and acronyms like PPE. Phrases such as social distancing became daily speak. And through it all, we found new ways to communicate. We became Zoom proficient and met in Google Rooms rather than the places we gathered before. It was a matter of survival, spiritually, physically, and as a community. This pandemic will forever change us, and the language will change our culture.Language and culture are married. One creates the other. This is why we find the Broadsided Translations issue so important and why we always choose to bring in languages that are just waking or languages we may not be as familiar with. Because they are more than just words on a page. They are civilizations. They are a matter of survival.The stories each of these poets tells is a story they could find only in their language, or, in Manny’s case, in the combination of the two. Poet Janil Uc Tun worked with translator Don Cellini to share his world. If one does not speak Spanish, the words on the page mean nothing, or very little. Don opens the words by translating them and for those of us whose first language is English, we look into Janil’s world and there we see a beauty we can recognize. A beauty that artist MJ Levy Dickson recognized as she created her own translation, a translation into art, a communication that preceded even words. All of this leads to understanding and to a community that knows neither walls nor borders.The Diné that poet Manny Loley writes looks so much like the stalks of corn he writes about. Manny lives in the world of both of these languages and merges them to tell his story. Moreover, he keeps the language of his ancestors alive that his predecessors may better know who they are. The words are like the pollen in the poems they seek the fertile soil for survival.As we go forward from this year know that the language we carry is the tool future generations will use to build and repair and maintain the beauty in their culture. Let those tools also be border-free and know that even when the words are new and unknown to us, we can understand and respect their importance to all of our survival.
Originally, MJ, you responded to another poem (“dá’ák’ehdi” / “in the cornfield”) by Manny Loley. When it was accepted for publication in another journal, Manny wrote this new poem in direct response to your image. I’d love to hear from both of you about that process (one we’ve never before had at Broadsided) and how it felt to you….
Manny, what was that process like for you?
Poet Manny Loley: The process was truly a conversation between the artist and poet, between the visual image and language. While both are contained within the white space of the page, which can be a constricting space at times and one that is full of historical and sociopolitical trauma for many BIPOC writers/artists, allowing the two to converse with each other, to change with each other, was refreshing and liberating. When writing the original poem, I literally stood in my mom’s smaller cornfield and my great-grandma’s cornfield behind my grandma’s house and I tried to be fully present in those moments. This presence is what I tried to convey within the poem, both originally and in conversation with the artist’s piece. What I observed in those moments was probably different from what the artist focused on when they experienced a cornfield. For example, in the artist’s rendering, I noticed the painting style looked like rain had just come through, so that made me think of rain and water and tears. Being in a cornfield, when one is in need of reassurance or some type of healing (at least for me), is a very moving experience because you feel a connection to the worldview, to the labor, and to the personhood that your ancestors embodied in connection to those cornfields. The white space of the page has the potential to be that kind of space too.
MJ, what do you see anew or differently in this poem’s response to your image?
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: I was curious about corn pollen and decided to do some research. I learned about the significance of the corn pollen path in Native American culture. I am quite overwhelmed that my artwork would inspire an important ritual symbol, a bridge between belief and action. I would like to discuss Manny Loley’s connection to corn pollen and what role it plays in his life. I changed the background color to yellow; it is a symbol of life and reproduction. This seemed like a further acknowledgement or reinforcement of his beautiful poem.
What was behind the creation of the poem you originally sent, Manny?
Poet Manny Loley: My community and my tribal nation have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The social ills we face in our communities like alcoholism, drug abuse, and others have been compounded by this pandemic. Our lives were hard before but even more so now. I wanted to think through what my family is experiencing and what my community is experiencing so I had been spending a lot of time in my family’s garden. We didn’t have a garden before the pandemic and we wanted to lessen our trips to the grocery stores, so my older brother and I built a garden for my mom. My great-grandma on my grandpa’s side had a huge garden once. My mom tells lots of stories about this garden and about how she would collect corn pollen with her grandma. Cornfields are places of healing and sustenance for Diné communities. I wanted to dwell in that space literally and on the page to find strength and healing. Although the pandemic is hard on our communities, it has also presented a return to older ways of being and knowing that centers our humanity. That’s what I hope the poem does for any reader.
Why did you originally respond to Manny’s first poem, MJ?
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: I drive by fields of corn whenever I go to town. When I read his poem I wanted to stop in the corn fields and sketch each stalk and tassel. What I came away with had more meaning than merely drawing what I saw.
You write your poems in both English and Diné–how do you balance the nuances and sounds of each language in your poems?
Poet Manny Loley: Diné sounds cannot be replicated in the English language. Some Diné concepts take many sentences and even pages to reproduce in English. The challenge for me is to get at these ideas in my English translations and some of them aren’t exact or aren’t complete. I think this is important because it speaks to the brilliance of our Diné language. English has existed in this land for a short time and can’t begin to build a connection to this land like the Diné language. But this imperfection in translation is also a part of a Diné worldview–there is no such thing as perfection. Diné weavers know this and that’s why they have a part of their weaving that is imperfect.
Do you see an overlap between the act of translation and the act of responding visually to a piece of literature?
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: No. Well, maybe visualizing words may act as a translation for an audience who doesn’t know how to read, understand, or translate the words, a way to communicate the unexpressed. Otherwise, visual art traditionally crosses language and borders.
When you consider both broadsides in this folio together, what comes to mind?
Poet Manny Loley:
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: The poet’s ability to create a sacred space with words.
Describe your dream “Vectorization”—where, in your wildest dreams, would you most like to see this broadside posted in the world?
Poet Manny Loley: I’ve always written with my family and my community in mind. Seeing my poems displayed in my community, even on my grandma’s fridge, would make me happy. To have my poems exist in the world and for people to read them is already beyond my “wildest dreams.” I grew up in a mobile home with no running water and thinking about poetry and writing in general seemed so far away. Now, my poems exist in the world and that means so much to me.
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: I would like to see the Native Americans be able to read these poems in their own communities.
If this broadside were a type of weather, what would it be?
Poet Manny Loley: There’s a Diné song in which there is an image of a person returning to their home in good health with rain coming down all around them. The rain blesses their body and mind. I imagine this broadside like that song–a person walking among rabbit brush, sage, chamisa while rain puddles around these plants and the sound of rain ripples these puddles. Wet earth smell all around.
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: Early morning ground fog evaporating as it rises to the sun and a new day.
Read any good books lately?
Poet Manny Loley: Since I’m in a doctoral program, a lot of what I’m reading deals with my research on conceptualizations of time in Diné literature. I’ve been reading a combination of poetry, fiction, historical documents, and academic articles. The poetry collections I’m currently ruminating on are A Breeze Swept Through by Luci Tapahonso (1987), Blue Horses for Navajo Women by Nia Francisco (1988), Storm Pattern: Poems from Two Navajo Women by Della Frank and Roberta D. Joe (1993), Saad by Rex Lee Jim (1995), and Cedar Smoke on Abalone Mountain by Norla Chee (2001).
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. I have just begun Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
Seen any good art lately?
Poet Manny Loley: I’m an avid collector of art from Indigenous artists, especially Diné artists. I just purchased a piece by Damien Jim (Diné artist from Keams Canyon, AZ) who goes by “Red Star” on Instagram. The piece depicts a female hogan beneath a starry sky and the earth resembles pottery. It’s a more contemporary piece with a style resembling graffiti art and reminiscent of Baje Whitethorne Sr. Some of my favorite Diné artists are Tasha Nez (IG handle pacotacorox), Daniel Josley (IG handle danieljosley), Jay Smiley (IG handle jaysmileylive), J. Stanley (IG handle jstan_art), Tamarah Tsinnie-Butler (IG handle artbytamarah), and Gil Scott (IG handle gstruarts).
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: Nicky Enright, Asya Reznikov, and Nari Ward.
Anything else? (Here, we invite the collaborators to invent a question, add a comment, or otherwise speak to what the questions so far have not tapped about their Broadsided experience).
Poet Manny Loley: There is a Diné adage that stipulates that language is a healing force. Language includes storytelling, and in extension poetry. There are certain stories that reside within us, which we live with and can recall over and over again. My question for readers is this: what are the stories that reside within you? What stories heal you?
Artist MJ Levy Dickson: My involvement with Broadsided has been very rewarding. This particular experience has been unique and provided me with the opportunity to learn about a culture through thought and the written word. Manny Loley seems to express written thoughts in a separate place in his mind to the benefit of all who read his poetry. He provides us with a moment of reflection within nature when a cornfield may not be available to all who read “The Language of Corn Pollen.”